At the wrap-up of the British Open, it seems a good time to examine one of the more interesting problems at the intersection of psychology, biomechanics and neuroscience: the yips. The yips are a general term for the erosion of a common, and previously easy skill. The most prominent examples typically come from golf, when we see a great player lose the ability to drain two and three foot putts, while the rest of his game remains completely intact.
For a long time, it was assumed that the yips were a purely psychological phenomenon, linked to a loss of confidence, over-thinking and anxiety. This explanation matches up with a lot of the research around performance anxiety and choking, which we examined in a previous post on the psychology and neuroscience of choking:
Thinking and planning a movement is something that novices, who haven’t yet refined that skill, have to do in order to perform it more successfully. In fact, it has been observed that instructing skilled soccer and baseball players to consciously attend to the biomechanics of a simple task like dribbling a soccer ball or swinging a bat causes them to perform worse than when they perform a skill naturally. It has been theorized that high stakes cause athletes to overthink and become self-conscious about their movements, which in turn causes them to revert back to the rigid movement patterns of a less-experienced performer. This has been observed in disciplines from rock-climbers to weightlifters to piano players. The mind can get in the way of the body smoothly carrying out what it already knows how to do.
Still another way of describing what happens is through the lens of neuroscience and brain activity. Some of the best research around the brain activity patterns of experts has been done by Brad Hatfield at the University of Maryland. His research around expert marksmen (marksmen are easy to study with brain imaging equipment because their heads don’t move while they perform) has shown that their brains are, in fact, ‘quieter’ and more economical than the brains of novices. In effect, they tune everything else out so thoroughly that only the most essential brain areas associated with the task are turned on and working.
A recent New York Times article examined several new theories that seek to explain the yips through different lenses. The first, that the yips have a biomechanical origin caused by the buildup of scar tissue in the forearms, has been proposed by Robert Anthony Pritchard, a biomechanics expert:
Pritchard said he was analyzing the swings of some of golf’s greatest ball-strikers for his book, “The Efficient Golfer,” when he noticed that Snead, Hogan and Trevino all restrained their driver swing in order to return the club at impact to its original position. A friend, Prichard said, pointed out that they had one other thing in common: the yips.
“They were gripping the driver very hard, so as to limit extension at impact,” Prichard said. “The driver head is going over 100 miles an hour through space and is pulling away from the golfer with 100 pounds of force. Even though this pull only lasts for a fraction of a second, it is repeated over and over again and it results in the tearing of hundreds of the tens of thousands of small individual muscle fibers that make up each muscle in the forearms.”
Over time, Prichard said, the accumulation of scar tissue and the tension in the forearms from fighting centrifugal force causes spasms when a golfer grips the putter lightly, activating the same set of muscles. In other words, what was good for consistent ball-striking was ultimately bad for putting.
Unless the article is omitting research that exists, there is no evidence to support Pritchard’s claim, and it is, frankly, surprising that the New York Times would publish pure speculation like this. Pritchard’s claim could be true, but there is no research that supports that it is.
Another potential explanation comes from researchers at the Mayo clinic, who have studied the patterns of muscle activation in golfers with the yips and without them. Via Medical News Today:
In the study, 25 golfers who complained of the yips were compared with 25 who did not. The golfers were matched for age, gender and golf handicap. All were asked to perform putts of varying lengths on an outdoor putting green while the electrical activity in their muscles was measured. Wrist movements were measured using electromyography (electrodes placed on the skin of the forearms) and a video camera recorded their putting strokes. A specialized glove, a wireless device with tracking sensors, was used to measure hand and finger movements of the right hand. Seventeen of the golfers exhibited involuntary movements during putting.
In this group of golfers the major finding, on analysis of the glove data, was that the golfers with an involuntary movement had a significant increase in pronation/supination (rotation of the hand). Many also had co-contraction of muscles that extend and flex the wrist.
This explanation is not only plausible and supported by research, but also has some explanatory power for sufferers of the yips in other sports, since golfers are not the only athletes afflicted. Some famous examples come from Baseball, where Chuck Knoblauch lost his ability to throw the ball to first base as a second baseman (sometimes spraying the ball so badly it went into the stands), and Rick Ankiel lost the ability to hit the strikezone as a pitcher before amazingly transforming himself into a pro-level hitter and outfielder. The yips have even been observed in a world champion snooker player, a situation in which the scar-tissue hypothesis seems implausible.
There is unlikely one, true source of the yips, as the mind, brain, nerves and muscles, confidence, expectations and emotions are all so inextricably linked. But researchers are increasingly dialing on on the diverse causes of complex phenomena like the yips. And where research that explains something comes, training programs and therapies to fix it usually aren’t too far behind.